Tracts of fertile agricultural land stretched as far as the eyes could see. With the changing seasons, the colours of the harvest varied from shades of green to brown to golden to fluorescent yellow, yielding bounties of rice, maize, potatoes, mustard, red gram, and rapeseed. A mix of some thatched huts and other unplastered brick houses of the poor and a few brightly painted and well-done rural bungalows of the affluent scantily dotted the topography.
While patches of groves amidst the vast farmlands provided shade, deep wells and shallow ponds quenched the thirsts of both man and beasts. Cows, buffalos, goats, ducks, chickens, dogs, foxes, mongooses, snakes, frogs and the occasional nilgai Indian antelope often found themselves on the asphalt Patna-Parsa-Siwan State Highway 73 that cut across the region.
Various shops and small businesses haphazardly sprouted on both sides of the highway, bringing a subtle commercial flavour to the predominantly rural landscape. Situated forty kilometres from the city of Chhapra, headquarter of the Saran district in the state of Bihar, eight-hundred-and-eighty-three residents living in one-hundred-and-fifty houses, covering a geographical area of around thirty-one hectares, formed the Parsa Pojhi village.
“Enough is enough Sarpanch’ji! We need to do something about this cacophonic buffoon. Our eardrums would burst if we heard one more note from the clown’s flute,” cried out Ramprasad, a well-off farmer, addressing the group of five elders that sat under an ancient Banyan tree in the presence of other villagers.
“The word of the Panchayat is final. We have decided that from today, the pesky flute player, Bhuali, is barred from playing his pipe in public,” announced the Sarpanch after a few moments of further discussion. While the gathered villagers sprang to clap and cheer the verdict, the short and shabby enthusiastic flute player in ragged clothes slowly walked away, sulking, and sobbing about the decision. Rejection and scorn were, however, not new to him. He had lived his entire life facing such hostile music.
Sixty-year-old Bhuali lived in a small, thatched hut of wood and bamboo, held together with rope and hay, cemented in cracked sun-dried clay. The withering palm-leaf roof of his humble adobe often leaked. Wild shrubs, a few crooked twigs, and a couple of short bamboo sticks connected to each other with a mix of ropes and cords formed the flimsy periphery of his tiny plot of land of sixty by sixty-four feet. He grew some vegetables on his patch and occasionally laboured in neighbouring fields. Playing the pipe, however, was not a source of earning.
A glowing coir wick inserted into an old cough syrup bottle half-filled with kerosene produced a flickering flame that dimly lit the hut’s inside. Lying alone on a rickety palmwood charpoy at night, the old man smiled as he polished his beloved bamboo pipe. Bhuali had carved out the musical instrument with his own hands when he was just thirteen. He had always wanted to be a musician but could never fulfil the dream. Playing the flute, however, gave him the greatest joy. It was the one thing he had continued doing throughout his life.
Unfortunately, his music was not that great. To tell the truth, it was annoying at times. If not played correctly, the cracks in his old instrument made it sound more like the call of a wild beast rather than usual music. The villagers were not that wrong to be harried by his constant cacophony. They could, however, had tolerated him if they chose, but then he was an old and low-born penniless nobody, and the world does not accept the poor man’s whims and fancies.
Life as an illiterate low-caste rural poor was laced with hardships. Even the land on which he lived was not his. It belonged to the Government, and due to its sloping nature and an odd location at a far corner of the hamlet with no roads for access, filled only with wild shrubs, the villagers did not mind him staying there. It was the one place shrouded in a patch of wilderness with hardly anyone around where the piper could peacefully play his pipe without any interference.
The Terai, a part of the Terai-Duar savanna and grasslands ecoregion, spread from the Yamuna River eastward across the Indian states of Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Tall grasslands, scrub savannah, sal forests, and clay-rich swamps covered this lowland terrain in the confluence of northern India and southern Nepal, lying south of the outer foothills of the Himalayas, the Sivalik Hills, and the northern Indo-Gangetic Plains.
The Nepal Terai comprising fifty wetlands, spread over thirteen thousand square miles, and covering about twenty-three per cent of Nepal’s landmass, formed an integral part of this ecologically diversified geographical domain. The gradual encroachment of this land by humans for cultivation and expansion of civilisation was a considerable threat to wildlife in the region. It forced many of the wild animals to roam into human settled territories, thereby leading to tussles between man and beasts. Now, there was also a connection between this region and the piper of Pojhi village.
Bhuali was born in the Nepal Terai region. When he was ten years old, he and his parents had migrated on foot from there to this place. He missed the wetlands and felt sad, for he knew that he would never get to see the place again.
At the crack of dawn, the day after the Sarpanch’s decision, Bhuali came out of his hut with his pipe to play a bit of music to cheer himself. He had no other work that day. For the past few weeks, none of the farm owners had been hiring him to show their displeasure toward his pesky flute playing.
Bhuali sat on one of his favourite rocks, closed his eyes and played his pipe with utmost concentration, enjoying the music he created. Cracks in the old instrument made it sound funny. He did not mind and continued playing. As he stopped the music, he heard a short, guttural “bwooah.” Startled by the sudden noise, he opened his eyes, and just two feet from him stood the largest wild beast he had ever seen.
“Bwooah… bwooah…” the animal continued, stomping his legs, nodding his head and waving his horns in displeasure. Was it going to impale him? would it shatter his bones with its kicks? Was this to be the end of the nobody Bhuali, playing his pipe, sitting on his favourite rock at one corner of his field? With his mind suddenly flooded with such terrifying questions, stricken in fear and unable to decide what to do next, Bhuali did the only thing that had always calmed his senses. The old man lifted his pipe to his lips and resumed playing music.
To his amazement, the creature stopped grunting and got back to grazing the short shrub that sprouted wildly in his field. It was his music that had attracted the behemoth. Bhuali slowly rose, still playing his pipe, and to his disbelief, the animal followed, grazing on the shrubs of the field, and occasionally raising its head to keep track of him. After nearly three hours of enjoying the piper’s music, the creature turned away and left the old man to his relief.
Flabbergasted and exhausted by this unexpected encounter with the wild, that day, Bhuali decided not to venture into the village. Having his single meal for the day at four in the evening, the piper retired early and went to sleep.
The night was restless, and the old man turned from side to side on his palmwood charpoy, dreaming of playing his pipe on stage in a hall full of beasts while villagers booed him from the back seats. Drenched in sweat, he woke up startled by the sound of a low scratching on his wobbly tin door. As the first rays of the morning light fell on his eyes through the gaps in his hut’s palm-leaf canopy, he realised that the beast had returned.
On one hand, he felt irritated and scared, and on the other, he felt joy. He could not ignore that the creature seemed to appreciate his music and had come back for more. Overcoming any and every fear, Bhuali went out of his hut with his pipe. To his surprise, the animal was not alone. There were many more of its kind all over his field and beyond. He had never seen such a massive herd in his life. All of them had a certain gleam of expectation in their eyes.
“Bwooah… bwooah…” the alpha grunted, stomped his legs, nodded its head, and waved its horns. The heard shadowed the actions of their leader. It was clear what Bhuali’s wild audience wanted. The old man played his pipe, and the beasts calmed down and continued grazing. Now finding a comfort zone with his newfound and unusual audience, Bhuali moved around his field and beyond, playing his music. Surprisingly the alpha followed with the herd behind.
This wild and bizarre encounter continued for a week, and then one day, the beasts did not come. All this while, Bhuali had not gone into the village. He was too engrossed to play music for the only audience he had ever had in his life, and now they were gone. Feeling depressed, four days later, Bhuali ventured into the village for some human company to cheer himself, and to his surprise, found the entire hamlet in utter turmoil.
“The beasts are ruining all our crops. We have never seen such a large herd visit the village before. They are running amock in our fields, destroying the harvest. Till four days back, they were not that disruptive. Now, suddenly they have become more destructive. We need to do something fast to rid ourselves of these vermins,” said a farmer as he stopped for a few minutes to catch his breath before cycling away carrying a large stick to save his harvest.
Following the commotion, catching bits and pieces of news about the sudden calamity that had engulfed the village, Bhuali landed in one of the fields where many of the villagers had gathered in a circle. Wild beasts ran all over the place. People chased with sticks and stones, beating drums and throwing firecrackers at them.
“You should not have killed the beast Ramprasad. It was the leader of the herd. Without it, all the other animals have gone crazy,” screamed out an elder. “This big one was the ringleader. I thought that it was right to put it down. I did this for all of us. How was I supposed to know that this would make things worse,” cried out Ramprasad to justify his cruel action.
It was a scene of utter ruckus with villagers shouting and accusing each other, chasing after the beasts trampling the crops. Then a shrill and long high-pitched note broke the commotion, and both men and beasts stood in silence.
No one had ever heard the piper blow such a shrill note from his pipe before that day. Before anyone could react or protest, Bhuali bellowed hard on his pipe and continued his music. Everyone was surprised to see the beasts around the piper suddenly becoming calm and harmless. The old man slowly moved about the village playing his flute, and to everyone’s amazement, the animals followed him. It took him two hours to gather the entire herd and bring it close to his home, away from the other fields.
That night Bhuali lay outside his hut. He occasionally got up to play his pipe to keep the herd near him. The old man could not sleep. After thinking deeply for many hours, he had finally made up his mind. At the crack of dawn, Bhuali packed a small sack with a few clothes and little snacks and said goodbye to his beloved home and the tiny patch of land.
Villagers who rose early that day witnessed a sight that perhaps no one had anywhere seen. For the first time in their lives, they did not mind the music the old man played. They saw Bhuali slowly walk away from the village playing his pipe, with the heard following his footsteps. Few of the villagers followed him till they could, and then, they never saw the old man again.
The diurnal Boselaphus tragocamelus, the largest of the Asian antelope better known as the nilgai, literally meaning ‘blue cow’ is found majorly in the Nepal Terai and its neighbouring north Indian states. Thought to be extinct in Bangladesh, recent reports suggest otherwise. Apart from these three countries, it is also found in Texas, where it was introduced in the 1920s. In 2008 the feral population in the US state stood at thirty-seven thousand.
With an estimated population of around 1 million in India, the animal has been considered a pest in several north Indian states. Though the name “nilgai” appeals to the religious sentiments of Hindus, the animal is many a time killed for ravaging crop fields and causing considerable damage.
In Bihar, authorities have classified the nilgai as vermin. Through a proposal implemented in 2016, the state allowed hunting of the animals with laid down procedures. Many have, however, resorted to killing the Bovidae in cruel ways. The Uttar Pradesh Government also has given farmers and firearm license holders the right to cull the creatures. Animal rights activists are not happy with these decisions and constantly protest for more humane solutions. The Rajasthan Government has proposed more non-lethal tranquillisation and sterilisation options.
No one knew where Bhuali went. There were reports from here and there, after the incident of a man playing his flute followed by a massive herd of nilgais crossing villages, agricultural fields, rivers and forests. Some say the old man collapsed and died on the way. Some say he never finished his unknown journey and settled in some village somewhere. Some, however, believe that he found his way back to his land of birth in the Nepal Terai wetlands, where the pied piper of Pojhi spent the rest of his days.
Copyright © 2022 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at email@example.com or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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